Author’s Note: I wrote this story about 10 years ago on a very long train journey from London to Penzance. I had set myself the task of getting on the train and writing a story cold, with no forethought whatsoever, just from whatever inspired me on the train. I’d assumed that I would get the seed of an idea from my fellow passengers, as I usually spent train journeys making up stories in my head about the strangers around me. As I sat there with pen poised over my writing pad I was surprised to find that my story came from another source altogether, it was as if the ghosts of the men who had dug the train routes, all those generations before, were softly whispering their tales into my ears. The story that emerged surprised me, even more so when I later came to tidy it up; being an historical piece I would have to check my facts, especially as I was far from an expert on the era and the subject. To my astonishment I had to add or change very little, it was indeed as if I had channeled the ghosts of the long dead railway navvies…
I do hope you enjoy this story… and if you do, please let me know by either leaving a comment below, or a message on my Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/janispegrumsmithfanpage/
Unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of WordPress, it has been impossible to provide the correct indents in the layout of this story for this blog version. If such things annoy you, you can read the perfectly laid out and indented story in PDF version here Into The Light 2017pdf
Into The Light
Janis Pegrum Smith
It was silent now.
The endless death knell of the shifting earth had finally stopped, the choking dust abated.
Big Bill dropped his usual deep valley’s boom to a whisper; hoarsely, he had called out to the other men through the dark, ‘You there, lads?’
‘Aye, I’m here, Bill, thank Jesus and the angels,’ Paddy returned the big man’s whisper, crossing himself in gratitude to the Holy Trinity as he spoke. It hadn’t slipped the Irishman’s notice that Big Bill always assumed command when the Captain was not around, like some sort of self-appointed deputy. But being that Bill was the oldest in the work gang – and for that matter the biggest – to Paddy’s mind, who was going to argue with the fella?
The hushed voices of Little Davey and Big Bill’s partner in crime, Jonesy, followed from the darkness.
‘Good’o, Jonesy,’ Bill croaked back. Never were those two men more than an arm’s breadth apart, tied with a string they were. Big Bill declared he was still in possession of his candle and a match. He warned that he was about to strike it, telling them to mind their eyes. It can be quite a shock to a man’s vision, in dark such as this, to suddenly see the light.
‘Ain’t sure we’re s’pposed to be lightin’ nuffin’,’ whispered Little Davey.
Fifteen – too young to be down here, Paddy reflected.
Bill ignored the young Londoner’s concerns and lit the candle. Crisp was the scrape of the match before the little sulphur flame leapt violently into life, illuminating their predicament. The four found themselves huddled together in a tomb.
‘Width of one man layin’, an’ length of two long ’uns!’ Bill observed to himself under his breath.
They had been saved by the tunnel wall. Instinctively, all had cowered against it in a reflex action upon the thunderous roar – that dread sound all railway navvies lived in fear of ever hearing. Neat, newly laid bricks made up one side of the vault, whilst solid, sloping walls of rock and shale hemmed them in on all other sides.
‘Roof fall,’ Jonesy spoke the words they were all thinking. ‘Must have been that huge blast we heard from the other end that caused it. Cement wouldn’t have had the time to harden off from yesterday, see. Bloody bosses and their schedules.’
‘Any of yous see what happened to Gypsy and the New Fella?’ Bill was in full deputy mode, head counting the work gang. There was a lot of shaking of heads, none of the survivors wanted to dwell on where the rest of their gang could be. ‘Any of yous hurt?’ Big Bill asked again, holding the candle up to inspect each of them, as if he was the Surgeon General himself. He was careful not to move from where he crouched, as were the others, all of them aware that the slightest movement or sound could cause a further cave-in. Miraculously, there was not a scratch amongst them, even their hats were still in place upon their heads. Their faces, black with work grime and dust, peered at each other through the smears of dirt; ghostly-white skin beneath reflected the fear each man was feeling. Big Bill lifted the candle and slowly surveyed the situation. ‘Don’t think we should try digging ourselves out, boys. Too unstable, slightest move will have that ground shifting again and no mistake. Not good ground this, see. I’ve been saying that from the start of the job, haven’t I, Jonesy?’
‘That you have, Bill, that you have,’ chorused the other Welshman.
‘Not to worry though, lads. There’ll be all hell let loose up top, you know that. You’ve all been digger side of these happenings before.’
Big Bill was right, Paddy, Jonesy and he had dug countless men out of collapses like this in the four years they had been working this railway together. Navvying on the railways was a dangerous job – accidents, big and small, were an everyday occurrence. Digging a cut was bad enough, but it was common knowledge that tunnels were a tricky business, that is why tunnel tigers like them – the men who dug beneath the ground – were paid so well. There was a tunnel being dug down south where a man had more chance of winding up dead than if he had been on the battlefield at Waterloo, or so Paddy had heard. Digging these tunnels was dangerous enough for sure, but it was made even more so with the risks ‘The Company’ took. Always skimping things here and rushing things there, by way of shortcuts to get the work done on time. Tunnels were dug from both ends and shafted through the middle all at once. This tunnel had six shafts with different gangs working day and night over the mile-long stretch. The aim was to connect all the different parts, the quickest way to get a tunnel finished on time.
Paddy, Big Bill, Jonesy and Little Davey were part of a gang; Gypsy and the New Fella had been part of it too. Men called it a butty gang, a group of navvies who joined together under a master, the Captain in their case, to form a working unit for hire, within which all the earnings were split fairly. Being in a butty gang meant a man could earn a hell of a lot more than just the daily wage he could command on his own. It was a great honour to be asked to join a gang, it meant you had been watched and judged by your peers to be a sound man, it meant you were someone dependable who worked hard and got the job done, but most of all it meant you were ‘in’.
The Captain had invited Paddy to join when they had been working on the Liverpool line. Paddy now relied on the Captain to tender for work. If their bid was accepted they got themselves to the site and got on with the job. The Captain’s men were renowned as one of the best gangs in the muck. There were good bonuses to be made if you brought the job in early, but equally there were big penalties for works that fell behind the contract. The different sections were being built by varying butty gangs and lone hagmen, all working on their individual bits to complete the whole, each section having a knock-on effect on all the other work of building the line. The construction had to run on time, just like the locomotives that would thunder along these tracks one day.
Paddy and his gang had been working on the east side of the new tunnel. As usual, their work had been fast and, as usual, they were way ahead of schedule. There was always great rivalry between the different navvy gangs, this competition being heartily encouraged by The Company, as it was good for business. The tribalism that ran rife between the men made for faster work, as did all the betting and brawling that went along with it. Whereas, the workers on Paddy’s side had been ahead of schedule, he had heard the west side was way behind. Old Cornish Tom had told him, not three days before, they had hit a particularly nasty seam of rock that would not budge. Paddy had ribbed him, that was just a lame excuse made up by the lazy sods in the west side gangs because they were so behind. Paddy then reminded Old Cornish Tom he would be owing Paddy five shillings when he and his men made mid-fall before Cornish Tom’s lot!
Young Davey had been sitting round the stove of their hut with them and had asked, ‘Why they diggin’ froo these blasted ‘ills anyway, can’t them loco’s just go ova’ ‘em, or round ‘em?’
‘Trains is like water, son,’ Old Cornish Tom had explained to the young boy, with a patience that only comes with so many years of seeing and doing. He could have been the boy’s wizened old grandfather; his long, white beard much yellowed with the stains of too many a puff on a gumbucket clay of good tobacco. He passed the rum bottle they had been sharing to the smooth-faced boy, still too young to shave. ‘They has to take the easiest course from A to B them locomotives that are going to ply this route. Don’t like going up hills much they don’t, nor do they like going round ’em much neither. Straight line A to B’s what they need, like them old Romans used to.’
The young boy hung on Old Cornish Tom’s every word, he had been with the camp long enough to know that Cornish Tom was the oldest and wisest man around, what he said was as right as the bible! He held the old man in such reverence that he dare not ask what ‘Romans’ were.
In their wisdom, the delay at the other end of the tunnel had caused someone to take the decision to double-blast the sheet of rock that was holding things up. Some smart-arse tiger in that gang would have mapped out where he thought the charges should be placed; hammermen would have spent the morning knocking through the holes for the gunpowder and charges to be laid in. Then, BOOM! All the other shafts were supposed to be clear when such major blasting was taking place but ‘supposed to’ didn’t often add up to ‘done’ where The Company was concerned.
‘Time, after all, is money.’ as the Captain was often heard to proclaim. He was also often heard to say that in case of a cave in, none of his boys need fear, he would come and get them, dig them out with his bare hands he would. ‘We’re a team, lads.’ the great Scotsman would say, when they were all together, whether it be in their hut before lights out; at the pre-shift meetings before the boys went off to their work, or in the local hostelry, where he would buy all his lads a round on a Saturday night – if they had kept ahead of schedule that week. ‘You know what team means?’ he would go on, ‘Team means we all pull together, lads. We are like a family, so we are. A good family that sticks together and looks after its own! And you boys can be assured that if anything happens to you down there your mates will be there before you can blink. Upon my word, if the worst happens to you in one of those tunnels we’ll be digging like dogs! The Captain will dig you out with his own bloody, bare hands, you have nothing to fear. Before you can say God bless Her Majesty my ugly mug will be there, right in front of you, wanting to know where your bleedin’ shovel is!’ That bit always raised a laugh. ‘When you are down there in the dark, boys, the rest of us is right there with you – none of my boys should ever feel alone in the dark!’
Paddy recalled this speech, in his head, word for word. He listened intently for the tell-tale sound of shovels and pickaxes clawing away at the other side of the mound which barred their escape, but nothing could be heard. All was silent, save for the odd drip of water and the distant sound of rock still shifting. Faintly came the ever constant drone of the gins – the giant, steam-powered, iron engines that hauled huge iron buckets up and down the shafts, shifting men and muck through the day and night. Like great, mythical, storybook dragons they growled, puffing out their smoke and steam as they lifted impossible weights.
‘Don’t look so scared, Little Davey.’ The great bluff figure of Big Bill slowly edged nearer to the boy who was visibly shaken. His young hands quivered, the whites of his eyes standing out wide and stark against the grime on his face. Once close enough, Big Bill’s arm went around the lad’s shoulders in a protective, fatherly manner and he eased the boy down to a sitting position as he himself did – Paddy followed suit. Jonesy had already shifted his bottom to the ground and settled for a long wait. Paddy knew that Bill had a barrel-load of kids with his missus, back in the hills of Wales; he went on about them enough, ten or so, all boys, too, by all accounts. It seemed every time the big man went back home for a visit his wife got pregnant. Now he was comforting the young teenager in their midst in a manner he probably hoped another man might comfort one of his sons in similar circumstances. ‘Me and Jonesy here have been trapped underground six times we have, and ain’t we lived yet to tell the tale? Once, up to our necks in filth and water we was, whilst digging a tunnel for himself, Mr Isambard. That was under the river Thames in London that was.’
‘I know that tunnel!’ the young boy sprung into life, suddenly, ‘Me pa worked muck shiftin’ on the shore there.’
‘No. You don’t say! North or South?’ Big Bill asked.
‘Norf, of course,’ the young lad said, aghast that anyone would consider him from the other side of the aquatic London divide. ‘You could see the entrance from the end of our street. Bleedin’ amazin’ me pa said it was.’ The smile on the lad’s face fell away as suddenly as it had arrived. ‘Then, he and me Ma got bad sick and died, and us kids was sent to the work’ouse, but ran off I did and got work as a fat-boy.’
All the men present knew the skinny little runt of a nipper meant he had started his working life on the railway, running under the wagons that hauled the muck from the dig face. His little hands would be employed to grease the axles to keep them rolling – a mighty dangerous job that only small, skinny lads could do. They had to be agile and speedy, otherwise they were goners, crushed by the wheels of the ever-rolling, iron trucks. Time was money, nothing stopped or slowed when you were building a railway, you worked with it or got out of the bloody way. All those nippers aspired to be navvies, if they survived; Little Davey had achieved this dream.
Silence fell as Little Davey re-mourned his parents and his lost childhood.
Big Bill picked up his story to keep the boy’s mind occupied, ‘All the other times were down the pit back home, when we was coal miners, see. Me and Jonesy, from the moment we could walk we was down the pit. All will be well, boyo, you’ll see. The Captain will be here before you know it. All we’ve got to do is keep as quiet as mice and still as statues so we don’t upset no more of this here rock and start it all moving about again. We’ve just got to listen out for the boys coming to rescue us. You stick by me, lad, and it’ll be right, you’ll see. Look, there’s an old hand for you, Jonesy’s off a kip already, knows there’s nothing to do but wait, so he does.’
Little Davey carefully strained his neck around Bill’s bulk to see beyond where Horatio Jones had pulled his hat low over his eyes, nicely settled down to make the most of the opportunity for a rest. Except for at the very height of summer, they got up in the dark and went home in the dark. Sunrise to sunset were their hours, till the Yo-ho man called the end of the shift – so the chance for a bit of shut eye on the job was never to be sniffed at. A man of Jonesy’s experience knew that all there was to do now was wait to be rescued, and why waste a good wait? It is to be certain that when Jonesy’s father had held his new-born son in his arms and named him after the illustrious Lord Nelson, having served under him at Trafalgar, his hopes for the boy’s future had been much more than the reality they had become. All he had really secured for his son was the nickname of ‘The Admiral’, which made a welcome change from the predictable ‘Jonesy’ from time to time.
Paddy wondered what the Welshman was dreaming about ‘The Valleys’ no doubt. All he and Big Bill ever banged on about were the damn ‘Valleys’. Paddy often reflected in his head, and occasionally out loud ‘if the Welsh Valleys were that bloody good, why didn’t the pair of sheep shaggers feck off back to them!’ That would be when the pair had really got his goat or when there was a drunken brawl involving national pride afoot. The navvy camp swarmed with Welsh, Scots, English and Irish aplenty, amongst the four hundred plus men who lodged in the roughly built shacks up on top of the hill, way above where they now found themselves trapped. These men could be broken down into rival groups beyond that of their work gangs. The northerners hated the southerners, but then those from Lancashire hated those from Yorkshire… And so it divided down, only to quickly divide up again if a fellow from Liverpool was started on by some bloke from London, then the men clanned and took their sides. Only the Irish seemed not to partake of infighting. Paddy was not sure if this was because they were from another land entirely, having to cross over the water to get to England. All he knew was it mattered not if a man was from Connemara or Dublin, he was as glad to see them as they would be to see him. Mind you, if anyone took exception to their race, cast a comment about ‘thick bogtrotters undercutting a good man’s wage’, or dared to breathe a sentence about ‘Catholic vermin’, then the ‘Micks’ took up the gauntlet and did not stop swinging the punches till the last of the enemy was down!
‘You know, what we’ve got here, lads, is the makings of a good joke,’ Paddy broke the silence that had fallen. ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and two Welshmen were trapped in a tunnel fall…’
Little Davey smiled weakly but was not a bit cheered by Paddy’s levity, not like he would usually have been, in normal circumstances he would be readying himself to roll about with laughter at some witty observation made by this natural joker, but not today, not just now.
‘And what’s the punch line to be, then, Irish?’ asked Big Bill.
‘Ah, to be sure the Irishman is the only one to be getting out alive, ‘cause he prays to the right God, keeps company with the saints and has never forsaken his holiness the pope!’
Ordinarily, Paddy would have expected a blow straight to the nose for such a comment, instead, Big Bill simply smiled at the Fenian’s gallows humour. ‘The fact that God, in His gracious mercy, chose fit to spare us all is a sign that we’ll all be getting out of here alive, you bog-trotting mongrel. The Almighty doesn’t go round preserving good souls just to kill ’em off a little later. You see, the fact we’s still here means we’ll be rescued. And then I’ll be paying you that punch on the nose I owe you for that damn fool excuse of a joke of yours, Irish!’
The four men were sitting in a row in the dirt, their backs to the cold, damp wall which lined the already finished section of the tunnel. That was how the gang worked; the brick lining went up around the pickmen that dug and the muck shifters who took the spoil away in the constant stream of wagons. Little Davey sat to one end next to Big Bill; the now gently breathing, slumbering Jonesy next, with Paddy at the other end, inches from the scatter of rocks that marked the slope of the fall to the left of them. The wall of debris swept around in front of them in an almost a perfect arc. If Paddy stretched out his leg he could have touched the rocks to the front of him, something he dare not do for fear the rest of the roof would come down on their heads. His eyes picked up on something in the gloom, something sticking out from amongst the heap in front of him, a tree root, he thought, it looked out of place amongst all the mud and rocks. As quickly as Paddy’s eyes had discovered the strange protruding shape he realised it was an arm, probably Gypsy’s or the New Fella’s, he quickly focused on something else.
It was getting gloomier, Paddy realised Big Bill’s candle stump was burning dim, he pulled his own from his hat. Leaning across Jonesy, careful not to wake him, Paddy passed the stump of candle to Bill. He reflected that he didn’t have his tinder box on him; he wasn’t as flash as Big Bill here with his fancy matches. No, Paddy relied on a good old-fashioned tinder box to strike a light, but he had left it with his pipe on his bunk before the start of the shift. It was doubtful it would be there when he got back top-side; some hagman would have had them off and had a good smoke long since.
‘Thanks, mate,’ the big Welshman whispered back. ‘It’s not the candle, though. It’s the air! We must be totally closed in. No air getting through. The candle’s eating up the air like what we are. I’ve seen it happen in the mines. I’m going to have to blow the candle out, lads.’ He must have felt every muscle in young Davey’s body tense at this news as he said cheerily, ‘There, there, boyo, nothing to be fearing, you and me is right snug here and old Bill won’t be taking his arm from around these strong young shoulders of yours. We’s buddies we is, and Big Bill here will get you through this. Now, I’m just going to put the candle out, that’s all, boy. It’s probably best we don’t talk too much for a while either, give us a chance to listen out for the lads coming for us. Davey boy, your ears are a lot younger than mine, you listen hard and tell me when you hear those boys coming. Here we go then… one, two, three…’ And the candle was extinguished.
Paddy had never experienced darkness like it. He knew the other men were still there, he could hear their shallow breathing, but this curtain of black that had fallen around him consumed all. He listened through the silence as hard as he could, though it seemed the inky cloth about him had been pushed deep into his ears so they were as deaf as his eyes were blind – he could hear nothing. This is what it must be like to be dead, he thought… Basically, he was dead, buried deep underground like any corpse, except he was still alive, or was he? He recalled to mind the time – when he was a small boy – part of the local church cemetery had washed away from the hillside in a huge storm. He had gone with his da and some other men to help shift the debris. A dozen coffins had floated down into the road. He had seen one of them, the lid clean off, but it had not been the bare bones lying within that had tortured his dreams thereafter. His da had observed to the other men on how the occupant of that one ‘wasn’t a dead’n when they laid him to rest!’ The men had all laughed, but the image of those desperate, clawing, scratch marks became etched into Paddy’s mind, just as they had been etched into the inside of the coffin lid…
Paddy knew he had to stop these black thoughts. It was like the darkness was invading his mind, getting in through his eye sockets, into his skull, seeping into the very marrow of him. He thought of God for a moment, but he had not really thought of the Almighty for so long he did not really know where to start, so he thought of home and the turf-roofed, stone cottage that clung to the slope of the hill. If you stood on the front step you could see the town of Wicklow far below, with the sea spread like a carpet before it, while behind you rose the mountains. Ah, but a man felt king of the world when he stood on that doorstep! There would be his da tending the fields that lay between the squat stone walls that edged their small property. His ma stooped over the fire, cooking up a rabbit or some other morsel he or one of his brothers – Cormack and Sean – had caught for the pot. He could have sworn he could smell his ma’s stew breaking through the darkness, so much so he almost asked the others if they could smell it too. His ma was without doubt the finest cook in the entire world.
Paddy closed his eyes, then opened them again. It made no difference at all to what was before him, the blackness did not alter – he chose to close his eyes and keep them closed. Suddenly, he was back home again, his ma hanging out the washing which blew vigorously in the wind that whipped up from Brittas Bay – a wind that dried the clothes crisp with the salt that came in on the breeze. Brittas Bay, no finer place for a swim on a sunny afternoon. The sun would bake down on the backs of three hardworking brothers and they would tire of tending the fields. With a nod from Da they would be off, vaulting one-handed over the low walls, racing each other down to the sea, throwing off their clothes to run into the freezing water. Nothing more refreshing to the hands and the back after a long morning’s weeding.
The weeds on the farm grew taller and stronger than Paddy had seen anywhere, the boys worked their way through the endless rows of potatoes that poked their greenery through the stony earth. Any spied weed would be tugged from its home and thrown into the baskets on their backs – nothing was ever wasted – some weeds you could eat, Ma threw these into the pot; the rest went to the pigs. There were always two of the beasts in the sty by the house; one would meet his doom come Christmas – the other at Easter. It had been such for every single one of the nineteen years Paddy had lived on the farm. He had been born in the cottage; one week exactly to the day after his grandfather had drawn his very last breath in the exact same bed within which Paddy had drawn his first. The roof leaked like a sieve when it rained – which was more often than it was dry – and the fire filled the two rooms of the place with smoke, but it was home and it was where Paddy had been happiest.
Paddy had not seen that little cottage these past seven years, for sure he did not even know if his ma and da were still alive – though in his heart he was sure he would know if they were not. Cormack, the eldest, the golden boy they all idolised, had died in some far-off land; a corporal fighting for the English army. Paddy was still but a boy when his brother’s friend, his comrade-in-arms, had found his way up the hillside to their little cottage and sat himself before the smoking fire to relate Cormack’s last moments of life. The whole family had hung upon every word that fell from the fella’s mouth.
Da kept saying, ‘Quite a thing, you coming all this way to tell us yourself, he must have meant a lot to you, lad.’
‘Aye,’ the lad from the north had said with a tear in his eye, ‘best man I ever met!’
The family all nodded, and his da patted the man’s shoulder gently, while his ma sobbed softly into her apron.
Things had never really been the same after Cormack died; it was like a small flame had been blown out inside each of them, especially his ma. Sean wanted nothing more than to work alongside their father on the farm and to one day marry Maureen Flatterly – the youngest daughter from the next farm. All Paddy dreamed of was England. On long winter nights by the fireside his father would regale them with tales of his time in that distant realm, ‘A fair land, full of riches for the right man’ his da would say. He had worked on the canals as a navvy, built one all the way from one glittering city to another, and made himself enough money to come back, marry their ma and rent the land they worked to farm his dream. Paddy longed to do the same, and so, on his nineteenth birthday, he walked all the miles to Dublin, taking the first boat he could find headed for England. The master of a fishing boat let him work his passage across the Irish Sea. God, how green he was when he arrived at the Liverpool docks! Paddy chuckled at the thought of the young man he had been. The boy who had quickly found his father’s beloved canals had been superseded. The up-and-coming thing now was steam. It powered the huge, dark mills that crowded the skyline; all kinds of engines were employed wherever work could be found for them. The mechanical beasts made the towns of northern England heave and groan with the weight of the populace they attracted, and these ‘gins were even powering transport.
Paddy had stumbled into working on the railways by chance. After a couple of days wandering down and out in Liverpool he had called into a tavern to wet his whistle with the very last of the money he had in his pocket. He did not have any idea where he was going to sleep that night, nor what he was going to do now. He walked into a pub for a drink and he walked out with a job. Inside he had fallen into chatting to a great group of Irish lads who took to him straightaway and who – several pints later – carried him home with them, signing him up to the service of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company first thing the very next morning.
Paddy learnt his new trade digging his fair share of the thirty-five mile route of cuttings, bridges and viaducts. He had worked on them all, but it was tunnels that paid best, so it was tunnels he favoured. That is when the Captain had spotted him and invited him to join the gang. For three years now he had worked with the Captain. He, Jonesy and Big Bill were stayers, the rest drifted, stayed for a job, then went back on the tramp around the various railways that were being built. Sometimes you worked on one of Mr Stephenson’s lines, sometimes Mr Brunel’s. Your only real loyalties were to yourself and your gang, in that order. It was by no means an easy life, but it suited Paddy, and Paddy suited it. He had quickly grown from a grass-green, gangly youth into a tall, strong man with hands and shoulders broader than most, and a good reputation for being a reliable, hard worker who got the job done; that is why the Captain took him on. The pay was good; the company fair, and after all these years Paddy knew all there was to know about being a navvy. As Old Cornish Tom often said, ‘there was worse things a fella could be doing with his time’ and Paddy truly subscribed to that philosophy. He was content with his lot, that was, of course, until he fell in love!
Paddy may not have known what love was exactly, but he knew he loved Sally fair and true, and he would fight any man to the death to prove that was so. From the first moment she had poured him a jug of ale he knew he wanted to take her back to Ireland with him and bide with her to his dying day. They would have big, strong sons, maybe a daughter, too, who would have Sally’s long, blonde hair falling to her waist, and those same deep, blue, whirlpool eyes. He felt he could fall into Sally’s eyes and drown in their depths for ever, and her lips…her lips of fine perfection.
‘She likes the Irish, does Sally!’ the landlord would goad him on.
Paddy always found he had a shyness when it came to women, even though he had never wanted to be less shy with a woman than he did with Sally. Trouble was, the more he wanted to be bold and forward with her, the more he found he was tongue-tied and clumsy. He had never wanted a woman as much as he wanted her. Thoughts of her filled his every moment, asleep or awake, her face was ever with him; he did not even have to close his eyes, she was just there, swimming about in his head, round and round. In the end it had been Sally who had made the first move. He had been hanging around the tavern as often as he could, his eyes never off her for a moment. She served the other blokes, who laughed and joked with her, pulling her down onto their laps, their hands all over her, their mouths kissing her, all of which made Paddy fume inside and want to dash their brains out, instead, he sat rooted to his seat, wishing she would pass his way. He just sat and watched her go about her work, hating it when she had to go to the backroom for a while and he lost sight of her, it would seem an eternity till she returned.
One Saturday night, when all the railway crew were in, filling the tavern with boisterous banter and merriment, Sally had plonked herself down on his lap, straight down without a moment’s hesitation or a ‘do you mind?’ She had taken his head in both her hands and kissed him full on the lips. In that moment Paddy had wanted all time to stop forever, nothing on earth could be any better than that few seconds in which her soft, sweet lips were pressed so hard against his, and she worked his lips apart so her tongue could slip between them, deep into his mouth. Paddy had never kissed a girl like that before; oh, he would grant you there had been coy exchanges with Mary O’Driscoll behind the church after mass sometimes, but nothing, nothing like this! He learnt so much in that one kiss. Before he knew it Sally was leading him up from his chair by the hand, and out the back, that place he had so often seen her disappear to. He was oblivious to the cat-calls, crude comments and jeers that poured forth from his drunken mates as she led him away.
The backroom was dark and dingy; no light save that which came through the planks of the rough, wooden door. Between the numerous barrels and kegs lay a grotty, straw-filled mattress; it could have been the finest feather bed in all of England for all Paddy knew, for he had not a care as she laid him down upon it. Amidst the stink of damp and beer, Sally took him all the way to paradise over and over again, till they eventually lay still beneath the coarse, ragged blanket; her nakedness pressed close to his. He held her and told her of Wicklow; he spoke of how his ma and da would welcome her as if she were their very own, and he told her of the children they would have together on their farm.
After that night this scene would be played out every time he came to the tavern. Though, however eager he may have been to drag his beloved colleen into the backroom, she would gently tell him ‘later’ as she poured him an ale, and softly remind him that she had work to do. Patiently he would sit – pint after pint – until she could slip away, and then they would sneak off to lose themselves in each other. Then, they would lay for a little while, Paddy telling her of all that Wicklow had to offer her. Sally would giggle and stroke his hair. After a while she would slip like an eel from his grasp and dress quickly, picking up his trousers to forage through his pockets, taking the coins she found there ‘for things’, she would say, as she kissed his forehead and slipped back out into the hurly-burly of the pub.
Sally never came to the camp like the other men’s sweethearts did ‘I have to work, silly’ she would remind him, when he asked why. Paddy imagined her now, standing top-side, watching the rescue operations going on, desperate for news of him. Her beautiful face was there before him wrapped within his closed eyes, he had to get out of this. He had to make it for her. He almost had enough saved for them to go back to Ireland, and he promised God that if He got him out of there alive he would throw in the railway and take the first boat back home, with Sally by his side. Blow the fine dresses he wanted to buy her, and the fancy dinner he had planned before they sailed. There should be just enough to get them both home and to rent a small place – it would not be much, but it would be a start. As soon as he stepped into the fresh air he would grab her and tell her how much he loved her, and ask her to marry him, then and there, and she would say yes, and how much she loved him, and…
…Paddy guessed he must have fallen asleep. God, but he was cold, frozen to the bone and numb. He could not feel his limbs. He must have been asleep for ages. For a moment, upon waking, he had forgotten where he was, he could not work out why it was so dark, and then he remembered! He went to call to the others, he guessed they must have fallen asleep too, but his throat was so dry no sound came out. Then, he saw the light. They were saved! A small flicker appeared from the dark before him. It slowly grew bigger and bigger, this light took the chill from his bones and all the fear went from him in the knowledge they were saved. A face appeared. Was it the Captain? It was the Captain! No… wait… it wasn’t the Captain… it was… it was his da! His da must have heard Paddy was trapped underground and come to get his son. All the way from Wicklow his da had come to save him! Paddy wept at the sight of his father’s face before him.
‘Hush now, Son, no need for tears. You’re safe now; your old da is here with you.’ But the sound of his father’s voice just made Paddy cry the more.
‘But, Da,’ Paddy found his voice, ‘how are you here? How did you get here?’
‘Oh, lad, you’re safe now. I’ve come to take you home. Your ma’s got a nice rabbit stew on the go. Cormack caught it fresh this mornin’. They’ll be so pleased to see you. Come on now; come into the light with me, my boy.’
His da held out his hand and Paddy took it. He felt warm. He felt safe. His limbs had lost their numbness and it felt like he was just floating to his feet as he followed his da into the light and home.
THE END .